The victor and the vanquished are standing in a cluttered hallway backstage at the Washington Convention Center, conducting a conversation short and sweet—for one of them, at least. It’s just around noon on June 4, less than twelve hours after Barack Obama crossed the finish line ahead of Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic nomination. Obama and Clinton are here to speak to the annual conference of the influential Jewish lobbying group AIPAC. I am here to meet Hillary for what will be the final interview of her campaign—and, apparently, to clock a little history in the making.
The scene unfolding in front of me is a semiotician’s fantasia. For months, Clinton and Obama have battled (and battered) each other more or less as equals. But now there is no longer even a faint pretense of parity. When they first spy each other in the corridor, Clinton hugs the wall deferentially to let Obama pass; their brief tête-à-tête only ensues at the latter’s instigation. When the chat is over and the nominee strides toward the freight elevator to make his exit, his Secret Service agents brusquely shoo away Clinton’s aides: “Stand aside for Senator Obama! Make way for Senator Obama!”
The question of the moment is whether Hillary herself will heed those directives. The night before, as the results of the Montana and South Dakota primaries rolled in, she’d delivered a speech in New York that the cable-news bloviators and even some of her supporters deemed an egregious, churlish attempt to stomp on Obama’s buzz. She hadn’t conceded, hadn’t endorsed, hadn’t so much as acknowledged her rival’s historic triumph. Her audience chanted, “Denver! Denver! Denver!” She seemed to revel in it. Was Clinton engaged in an ill-conceived effort to strong-arm Obama into putting her on the ticket? Was she being supremely Machiavellian? Or had she simply lost her mind?
The Hillary I encounter a few minutes after Obama leaves the building is somber, prideful, dark-humored, aggrieved, confused—and still high on the notion that she is leading an army, Napoleon in a navy pantsuit and gumball-size fake pearls. She is keenly aware of the weird dynamics in play as she contemplates her endgame: Albeit temporarily, the loser has more power than the winner. She, not Obama, is in a position to bring the party together or rip the thing to shreds. She, not he, has the capacity to orchestrate a merger of their warring factions of supporters.
“The real lesson of the campaign is that neither my base nor his base alone is sufficient for a general election,” she tells me. “That’s important to stress, because now we need to look to November and how we put together a winning majority. We’ve gotta get this coalition to work together, because clearly the Republicans have been more successful at picking off the people who voted for me, and that’s exactly who they’re going after again.”
But the situation is volatile. Her voters are angry, they feel dissed, they have to be coaxed along. The question is how to do it. She is hearing from countless allies, but much of their advice—as it has been all along through this marathon campaign—is useless. A war is raging inside her between rationality and denial. Maybe she should wait a week before doing anything. Or maybe two. Keep her options open. See what happens. You never know.
More than an hour later, Clinton, a clutch of her aides, and I set off in an informal mini-motorcade for her campaign headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. She addresses her staff. There are tears and hugs. Then a come-to-Jesus phone call with Charlie Rangel, Barney Frank, and other Clinton-backing congressmen. The message is clear: The jig is up; she should go quickly and graciously. Three days later, Hillary does—and the gusher of postmortems begins.
This story is not one of them, however. The whys and wherefores of the collapse of Hillary Clinton’s campaign are already achingly familiar. The more interesting question is what Hillary achieved in spite of losing, and maybe even because of it.
The rapidly congealing conventional wisdom is that the answer is worse than nothing: Her legacy has been tarnished, her status degraded, and her reputation diminished by the brass-knuckle brawl she waged against Obama. But arguments can be made that, by historical standards, Clinton’s treatment of Obama wasn’t all that rough; that, far from weakening him for his tussle with John McCain, she made him appreciably stronger; that by fighting until the end, she helped gin up a fever-pitch level of engagement among Democrats that will redound to the party’s benefit this fall, rather than undermining it.
What strikes me as inarguable is that Hillary is today a more resonant, consequential, and potent figure than she has ever been before. No longer merely a political persona, she has been elevated to a rarefied plane in our cultural consciousness. With her back against the wall, she both found her groove and let loose her raging id, turning herself into a character at once awful and wonderful, confounding and inspiring—thus enlarging herself to the point where she became iconic. She is bigger now than any woman in the country. Certainly, she is bigger than her husband. And although in the end she may wind up being dwarfed by Obama, for the moment she is something he is not: fully, poignantly human.